By Jason McKeown
I’m about to meet Bradford City joint-chairman Julian Rhodes and have just realised that I have sick on my shoulder. 11 weeks since becoming a dad for the first time, my limited parenting experience meant I did not think to fully check if anything more than a belch was released when I’d burped my daughter 45 minutes earlier. Luckily there’s a bottle of water in my car and the patch up job on my shirt will just about do.
Not that Julian Rhodes would have offered anything but a sympathetic smile to the sight of baby sick. A proud father of two young children himself, when we meet up at Valley Parade’s 1911 club we instantly start swapping stories about sleepless nights and the joys of parenting. Having ordered two cups of coffee – an essential survival item for dads – he leads me to a rather luxuriously decked out executive box overlooking the Valley Parade pitch. “This is my dad’s company box”, Julian smiles. “Don’t worry, we charge him for it!”
Family values clearly mean a great deal to Julian. It was 16 years ago now that he and his father first invested money into Bradford City and joined the board. Since then the club has gone through 12 managers, been promoted to the Premier League, endured three relegations and suffered two spells in administration. Finally, after a difficult 12 years, last season saw some long overdue – and rather spectacular – success.
From initially having little day-to-day involvement in the running of Bradford City, the turbulent financial events following relegation from the Premier League dictated that Julian had to take over and deal with the mess caused by Geoffrey Richmond. At times looking a reluctant owner, Julian has saved the club from oblivion and got it back on its feet; the arrival of Mark Lawn six years ago easing the burden.
Famously steering clear of the limelight and rarely giving interviews, Width of a Post was hugely grateful for the opportunity to meet with Julian and ask him about his 16 years at the club. He gasps at the number of questions I have written down, but over the next hour answers each and every one of them.
So let’s get started…
WOAP It’s 16 years since you and your dad joined the board at Bradford City. How did you come to get involved with the club?
I worked for my dad (at Filtronic) after University in 1992. Then in 1994 we floated the business. Over the next couple of years we sold a few shares which meant we had a bit of money. We started looking around for things to invest in, and decided “Well we love Bradford City, why don’t we have a word with Mr Richmond?”
We first spoke to him in January 1997, and we ended up finalising the deal that July. There was a lot going on at the club around that time. We had just survived in Division One (now the Championship) on the last day of the season.
It was very much a backseat role. Geoffrey Richmond was the man in charge.
WOAP: Within the first couple of years Bradford City were promoted and stayed in the Premier League – it must have seemed easy this board member lark!
Well it wasn’t that easy. We (the Rhodes family) did have to borrow £5 million to fund the 1998/99 promotion push. It was the right thing to do because at the time Division One was a relatively weak league. It was the right time to have a go and we proved so.
I think the season we stayed in the Premier League was a record for the lowest wage bill also (£5 million). But that’s the thing really – if only we’d have come down instead, we wouldn’t have had all the problems. I think that because we stayed up, Geoffrey thought that we were the new Man United.
WOAP: How much were you and your family involved with the running of the club around that time?
We weren’t involved at all. I remember finding out about the signing of Benito Carbone on Teletext! Geoffrey Richmond called it six weeks of madness but I actually think it was four. Because he blitzed all of that money during a four-week period.
The damage was done there and then. It was very apparent that, if we got relegated, we would be in big trouble. And after about two months, it was obvious that we were going to get relegated. Once you have players on the kind of money they were on, if they’re not doing the business, it’s really hard to get rid of them.
WOAP: It all went wrong very quickly. Did it lead to a change of your involvement?
Yes, I got a lot more involved after we got relegated in 2001. To be honest, we would have been better going into administration the day we got relegated from the Premier League. We tried to keep going, but the situation was completely unworkable. You try to delay it in the hope that things will happen, like selling Carbone. But in reality it would have cost a fortune to get rid of him (due to the four-year contract he was in the second year of).
Even then, it was still a shock when we had to put the club in administration. I think some people thought it was some kind of wheeze but it wasn’t. The final straw was I saw some cash flows that showed the club was going to be haemorrhaging £1 million a month. But when I looked more closely, that assumed that we were receiving all of the ITV Digital money, which we weren’t, and it also assumed we were getting rid of Mr Carbone, which we weren’t. So it was more like we were haemorrhaging £1.5 million a month. And it would get worse than this 10 months after that. So the game was up.
I think the other problem we had was that we were one of the first ex-Premiership sides to go into administration. A lot of our creditors were common to other football clubs. And the other clubs were out to make a stance. We put together a CVA that was difficult to say the least, which was why we ended up back in administration a year later.
WOAP: That was such a scary summer for us supporters. You stood to lose a lot more than just the club you supported, I can’t imagine what that must have felt like…
It was horrendous. What you have also got to consider at that time was that all our wealth was in Filtronic shares. They were put up as collateral for everything we owed. The peak of Filtronic shares was £25. In October 2002 they were down to 27p.
We were lucky that the bank didn’t pull the plug on us. We had nowhere near enough coverage for what the debts were. Really, they should have bankrupted us and bankrupted the club. Luckily they didn’t. The bank manager at the time, who has now retired, still comes down here to watch games. If he hadn’t given us such leeway at the time, we wouldn’t have a club.
It was a really difficult time for us. I remember being really concerned about my dad. I thought he was either going to have a heart attack, a nervous breakdown, or both. In the end I told him to stay away, get back to what he was good at and I’d sort the mess out.
WOAP: Obviously you and Geoffrey Richmond fell out and he left the club. Have you been in touch with him since then?
Don’t get me wrong I was bitter at the time. We fell out during that summer, but we did have to work together to get things through. There was no way he could have stayed, so off he went. But I have spoken to him since.
Let’s be fair, he didn’t deliberately set out to ruin the club. But he was a gambler, and like many gamblers he didn’t think about the downside of the risks he was taking. If you speak to the Football League, they still say that Bradford City was in the worst position out of all clubs who went into administration. Even though Leeds United had bigger debts, they were a much bigger company underlying those debts. Whereas Bradford City, traditionally, has been a much smaller football club.
WOAP: In came Gordon Gibb, for 18 months at least, and a new era of austerity. What are your memories of that period?
I was amazed that he came in in the first place, but obviously very grateful. I think perhaps that if he had his time again he would have found a different football club to invest in with perhaps not so many problems.
He came in August 2002, we were out of money by October 2002. We had a little falling out around the November time when I had to go and see the PFA about getting the players to take wage deferments. From Gordon’s point of view he was young, he’d put a lot of his family’s wealth into the club and yet we were still after more.
We got through that season by hook or by crook, and I was very surprised that he offered to do the property deals at the end of 2002/03. Football League rules are very clear that football creditors have to be paid in full, so we had to find a big lump of cash to continue paying the wages. We had the option to sell the office block and club shop or the stadium, but really we needed to do both. Gordon offered to buy the stadium, which I was surprised at given only a year before he had parted with a lot of money to buy half the club, but I suppose he saw it as offering a bit more security.
Still, to be fair to him, it was a very brave thing to do. As it happened, this money was still nowhere near enough to cover what we needed. We still had to go into administration. And I don’t care what anyone says, if there’s no football club here, this stadium is worthless. It would actually cost you money to flatten the ground and build on the land.
As it’s happened it has worked out nicely for him. There’s still a football club and he gets his rent paid.
I was a bit upset when he went on the pitch and slagged me off (against Crewe in February 2004) when I wasn’t even there. Perhaps he could have reacted differently. But I will always be grateful for the fact that he came in when he did when there was no one else willing to do it.
WOAP: In hindsight selling Valley Parade to Gordon looks a costly mistake. Do you regret it?
We had absolutely no choice. There was no one else who would have bought it. We managed to get someone else (Prupim) for the club shop and office block, because they could see an alternative use if the club went belly up. But there was no one else prepared to do that for the stadium.
WOAP: Administration two was not long after. If it’s possible this one seemed even worse for us supporters…
For me it was nowhere near as bad. It was completely necessary. We were trying to find a way to get around administration, but part of the reason we did go into administration was because we couldn’t agree a deal with Gordon. We were looking to put some more money in to pay the bills.
All I will say is thank god we did go back into admin when we did. Had we not, we would have ended up going back in at some point in the future having blown a load more money and the club would probably have been in a much weaker position.
I know for supporters the summer of 2004 was a difficult time, but I actually felt a bit more in control of what was going on compared to the first time. I was always relatively confident that a positive outcome could be achieved. I know that the administrators set that deadline to shut us down, but I knew they wouldn’t do it before I had chance to get a deal done with the creditors.
We didn’t actually come out of administration until December that year. One of the reasons it took so long was because we had some money set aside to pay stadium rent. We’d had a 12-month rent free period, but by the time the rent was due we were in administration. So the rent owed had built up.
Gordon took an injunction or something out against us. It got to the stage where they were actually stopping us from paying the rent. I remember speaking to their solicitor and assuring him that, if we got out of administration, we had a great chance of surviving and paying the rent. That we did and we have done ever since. Apart from one month where we were a week late, a couple of years ago.
WOAP: There was that famous day where the club was about to go under and fans were gathered outside the ground, when a gang of five businessmen came in and got you all talking again. Was that a crucial moment?
I couldn’t figure out what was going on then. I remember that day. I had organised to meet Mike Moore, who was the administrator, to go through the deal in the afternoon. So there was no way he going to shut it down at 10am like it was suggested. I got the feeling Mike was trying to push the council to see if they would do anything to help. But they didn’t help. I could have told him that!
WOAP: Did you get to the point where you didn’t want to continue as owner?
All the time. I sometimes still get like that. It has been getting easier and easier, slowly, since 2002. When you have a monumental problem and you keep chipping away at it, it gets easier. But it does take up all your focus, and you do sometimes think “there’s other things I could be doing”.
I was lucky really. I had put my last bit of money into a start up company in North Yorkshire, based at a pig farm. That has been going along nicely and earlier this year I sold it. But before that it was something that gave me a regular income at the time when all the club’s difficulties had been going on. That was important, because I wasn’t getting any money out of here!
WOAP: League One brought calmness for a while under Colin Todd, before the fans got restless. Did you feel we had at least bottomed out?
I think it’s hard when you are going down the leagues, because people think “we used to be in the Premier League” but potentially ignore the fact we were in the Premier League with a £36 million debt. So you get people expecting us to get back up there.
But I knew with the budgets we had, that was a difficult challenge. I used to have regular meetings with the Bradford City Supporters Trust, and I remember telling them “You do realise we are far more likely to be relegated from League One than we are promoted?”
Colin was a victim of his own success. That first year he was in charge, at the end of October we were second. And because we missed out on promotion, people said it was narrow failure. But it wasn’t. We were in admin when that season started, with just five players under contract, so he actually did quite well.
After that, I think expectations were much higher. Colin did well to keep us in the top half of the division for quite a while. But, he wasn’t popular with a section of supporters and ultimately they are the people who pay the money.
I think Colin would have preferred it if I had kept him in charge until the end of the third season and then we made the change, and to be fair I had just sold his two best players; but I felt that we needed some kind of change of impetus. We had only won something like three from the past 20 games. People say we were only midtable (when Todd was sacked), but at the end of September we had been fourth and then went on a horrendous run.
I think at the back of my mind I always felt we would end up in League Two. I have been disappointed, since 2007, how long it took us to get back up into League One and also disappointed with the flirtations with relegation in League Two. Because for the first time in years, we had a large budget for the division we were in, when in League One we had a small budget. But thank goodness we have seen our way through that and hopefully we are on our way back up.
WOAP: In League Two you at least had the boost of Mark Lawn’s arrival. How important was that?
It was massive. You look at major things that have happened over the last 11 years – that was up there. We were down in the bottom division. At this point, most of the debts were sorted. But we still had a lack of money and we needed more. We still had the shop and office building rent, which was a drain.
Mark came in May and some of his money paid the wages of the players about two hours later. His investment gave us a platform of being able to set bigger break-even player budgets.
Mark, the cheap season tickets, and Stuart’s arrival that summer all gave us a new lease of life. From a personal selfish point of view, it helped me out no end. It was someone else to share the burden. I’m not sure he thanks me for it! I think he thought running a football club would be a lot easier than it was. But I think he enjoys it!
WOAP: Stuart McCall was evidently your choice as manager even before Mark came on board. I heard you went to great lengths to persuade him to join. It must have been disappointing that it didn’t work out…
Of course I was disappointed with how it turned out. But we shouldn’t forget that in the 2008/09 season Stuart was desperately unlucky. Up until Omar Daley got injured, we were flying. The number of fans who didn’t like Omar Daley, but when he got injured we didn’t pick up another win for ages. I think even his most ardent non-supporters realised at that point that Omar was integral to our success.
I think that Stuart was really unlucky. After that season it became more difficult for Stuart as we had to cut back. He was getting really frustrated. It was getting to him. I speak to him a bit still. He is much happier, more relaxed and I think the managerial experience he had here has made him a much better manager today.
I thought the way Stuart handled himself at Bradford was incredible. When we appointed him as manager, he was the biggest legend the club has ever had – and we know that all managers get the sack eventually! So it did concern me that, at some point, we might have to be parting company. But I thought the way he handled it was brilliant.
He left in such a dignified way that he is still loved here. He has been to a few games since, sat with me in the box, and everybody comes up to him and people still love him. He will always be a legend here.
WOAP: Peter Taylor came in as manager with a reputation as a promotion expert, but it was another false dawn…
That was disappointing. The season when he came in and replaced Stuart for the final three months, we finished it quite well. So we were all quite optimistic. But to be fair to him, the budget was coming down again. Peter had the worst budget that any Bradford City manager has had in League Two over that six-year period. So I think we were perhaps asking a bit too much of him.
When he came in, the expectation that we had was that if anyone can pull it out of the bag maybe he can. But sadly it worked the other way and we found ourselves in a relegation battle.
All I will say is that we do try to do things the right way when we part company with managers. When we beat Villa last year to get to the cup final, three of the first congratulatory text messages I received were from Stuart McCall, Colin Todd and Peter Taylor. They do still wish us well.
The unusual thing with Peter, when we parted company, was we told him that he had to be in charge for one more game (Stockport home, which City won 3-2). “Oh and by the way we are only charging £1 admission so there’s going to be a full house!” But he left a hero. Gareth Evans scored that 90th minute winner and Taylor left the pitch with everyone clapping him.
WOAP: Then came Peter Jackson. I get the feeling you were not impressed with his management of the club…
I persuaded Mark to let Peter come in for the rest of that season. I thought “We can’t strengthen the squad, what we need is a motivator. Peter is as good as anyone. Surely he can come in and do enough to keep us up this season”. And he did.
The only problem with that was that we felt we should reward him by making him manager for the following season. Now, unfortunately, I think perhaps he had spent a bit too much time away from the game and he wasn’t as up-to-date on player situations as he could have been. So that summer was a difficult one.
I must admit I was horrified after watching our pre-season friendly defeat to Carlisle. I walked away thinking that we were really bad. The first home game of the season before that was against Stevenage, where we won 1-0 – no idea how! I went home and said to my wife “this is the worst squad we have had for a long time.” One year on I went home after the Aldershot game (City lost 2-1) and said to the wife “You know what I said last year? Scrub that. This lot are even worse”.
After the first four games we had just one point, and that was a very lucky point picked up at Oxford where they battered us and we were poor. So we approached Peter about what we were going to do – and to be honest we were quite prepared to continuing working with him – and he said that he wanted to leave.
WOAP: That summer saw the arrival of Archie Christie and the Development Squad. What caused you to appoint him and how do you view his impact on the club?
We met Archie when we interviewed John Still for the manager’s job that summer. We didn’t appoint John, but Archie offered to come along and help us out for free.
Archie did some good things for the club. I didn’t agree with everything he did, for example the two lads from Falkirk he signed who I didn’t think were up to it. But on the positive side there was Nahki Wells. He saw the potential in Nahki – Peter Jackson wasn’t bothered about him. Archie told us that he thought Nahki could really play and wanted him in the Development Squad.
Archie was responsible for Phil Parkinson joining the club. It was Archie who recommended him and introduced us to him. For some reason Archie doesn’t get the credit for this, but it was down to him.
Archie also did a phenomenal job with George Green, getting that deal done, and also getting us some money for Tom Cleverley. So like anything in life, with Archie there was some good points and bad points.
I actually have a lot of time for Archie. He is certainly a mover and a shaker. He gets things done. But he had lots of other things going on in his life and he left to address them. I still talk to him often.
WOAP: The Development Squad idea fell by the wayside soon afterwards…
I understand all of the arguments about the Development Squad. I think that for us, the priority always has to be to get the first team right. I think that a Development Squad works if you are a massive club and can afford to do it, or you’re a very small club and you can’t afford not to do it because you’ve got to get those players in your squad.
When you are us, and you are aiming for instant success, the first team has to be the priority. We know that if we get into the Championship everything falls into place. So perhaps it is something we will look at again if we become a big club and can afford to do it.
In part two, Julian talks about the financial impact of the cup run, the job that Phil Parkinson has done and expectations for the future.